Katie Couric And The Anti-Gun Documentary: Not Just Vanishing Journalism Ethics, But Vanishing Consensus That Journalism Has Any Obligation To Be Ethical

Just in time for the Presidential campaign, old friend Katie Couric has been kind enough to remind us just how little we can trust journalists, how arrogant they are regarding their unethical methods, and how the profession that is supposed to protect democracy is now a threat to it.

Having failed in her effort to be a network news anchor and a talk-show host, the former “Today Show” star  is now biding her time at Yahoo News waiting for a comeback opportunity. She served as executive producer and narrator of “Under the Gun,” an anti-gun documentary written, produced, and directed by anti-gun activist Stephanie Soechtig. In one powerful scene (above) , Couric is seen asking members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, gun rights supporters all, “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?” The pro-gun members of the group with the motto “Defending Your Right to Defend Yourself”can’t answer the question! The documentary shows blank stares and a damning, awkward, 9 second period of total silence.

Fortunately, one of the gun owners in the sequence, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave, recorded the actual event before it was edited to make gun owners look like mutes. There was no pause. The members offered several answers. They were omitted from the documentary, with a pause inserted instead to bolster an anti-gun agenda.

Couric was aware of the deceptive editing, apparently questioned it, but allowed it to remain in the documentary. This is signature significance: no ethical journalist—if there even is such a thing any more—does this, ever, even once. While various media reporters on the left have expressed their disapproval, they have also muted their criticism to try to minimize the damage to their own profession. Here is NPR’s David Folkenflik, for example:

This manipulation — and that’s what it was — would not pass muster at NPR under its principles for fairness in handling interviews. It should be noted that documentaries operate with a different ethos than straight news. “Under the Gun” has a take, strongly suggesting there is a quiet consensus in favor of background checks among gun owners, aside from gun rights advocacy groups. This is not deception on a grand scale, but this handling of the interviews with the Virginia gun owners group is clearly unfair and unwarranted. People deserve to recognize themselves in how they appear in interviews.

Spin. It’s not “manipulation.” Its lying. It is presenting false information, not “manipulated” information. The film affirmatively represented that the response to a question was dumbfounded silence. That is as much a lie as recording fake answers like “Duh, well dang me, I never thought of that! I guess them background checks ain’t such a bad idea after all!” and dubbing them in. Lying isn’t just “unfair;” lying is dishonest and sinister.

There is also considerable doubt that such a technique really doesn’t “pass muster” at NPR, since it has been caught doing the same thing. How can anyone say this is not “deception on a grand scale”? A famous broadcast journalist lends her reputation and credibility to a deliberate effort to misinform the public and undermine the credibility of those who don’t support the journalist’s views. That’s deception on an unforgivable scale.

This is the widespread attitude of the increasingly brazen liberal news media: OK, you caught us this time, but at least our heart’s in the right place.  It’s The Saint’s Excuse. We’re only lying to you for your own good.

Van Cleave released his audiotape of the session (you can listen to it on the Washington Free Beacon site with the story by Stephen Gutowski ) and protested in a letter to Kristin Lazure, a producer at Atlas Films, which produced the documentary.

Here was her response to Van Cleave’s complaint about the fake pause:

“I’m truly sorry to hear you were disappointed with the final product. We knew when we set out to make a film on such a divisive issue that we weren’t going to make everybody happy. However, we have heard from many gun owners following our screenings and the television premiere who felt we gave the issue a balanced look and reflected their views accurately.”

She’s sorry he was disappointed with the final product, not that the documentary her company released lied. Her response sidesteps the offense. The issue isn’t that the film doesn’t “make everyone happy,” the issue is that it is unethical, unprofessional, and wrong. It doesn’t matter what positive reactions there have been, because those viewers didn’t know they were lied to.

Lazure’s response to proof that the documentary is dishonest and the participants were abused can be neatly summed up in three words:


(Because Guns Bad.)

The documentary-maker, Soechtig, responded to proof that she had lied this way (with my commentary in bold):

“There are a wide range of views expressed in the film. [ Irrelevant. The issue is a documentary and a respected journalist falsely using dead air as the answer to a question when dead air wasn’t the answer given.] My intention was to provide a pause for the viewer to have a moment to consider this important question before presenting the facts on Americans’ opinions on background checks. [Another lie. The intention was to falsely represent gun activists as dummies, or you are an incompetent documentary maker without a rudimentary understanding of film. When a film shows blank faces and  silence as the response to a question after editing out the actual response, the intent is to misrepresent and hide the real answer.] I never intended to make anyone look bad [ Although I don’t believe that for a second, let’s accept it. You intended to make the audience think their response was something other than it was. That’s worse.] and I apologize if anyone felt that way.” [ Thus avoiding the issue. Again. It’s not how people feel about the lie. This isn’t about hurt feelings.  The issue is that the documentary lied, and apparently the writer/director sees nothing wrong with that. This is a non-apology apology, a perfect #9 on The Apology Scale:

9. Deceitful apologies, in which the wording of the apology is crafted to appear apologetic when it is not (“if my words offended, I am sorry”). Another variation: apologizing for a tangential matter other than the act or words that warranted an apology.

Now here is Couric’s response:

“I support Stephanie’s statement and am very proud of the film.”

Signature significance. This was the charismatic sprite who, pretending to be an objective journalist, warped and manipulated public understanding and attitudes over decades on the“CBS Evening News,”  “60 Minutes,” of course, “Today.”  She’s proud of a film that lies…because it advances positions she agrees with.

Says Erik Wemple of the Washington Post:

An apology, retraction, re-editing, whatever it is that filmmakers do to make amends — all of it needs to happen here.

Sure it does, but Wemple is conveniently talking like the problem is just Couric. She’s been a mainstay of the news media for nearly 30 years, in multiple organizations. Are we really gullible enough to believe that she wasn’t always like this, and that her colleagues and employers don’t largely share her unethical views of a journalist’s duties and role?

The National Review‘s David French comes a bit closer to the reality we are facing:

Dear Yahoo, let me put this in plain English for you. Your premier news personality is “proud” of lying. She “supports” a statement that purports to justify those lies as a form of creative “pause.” This would be a firing offense at any decent opinion journal, much less an organization that purports to objectively report the news. Americans can no longer trust a single news report or a single interview from Couric. They now know that she will unashamedly and proudly deceive them to advance her own ideological agenda. New media has long claimed that it will be better than the old media — that it will be more responsive, more transparent, and more accountable. But for all its faults, we know that old media would almost certainly take this offense seriously. We’ve seen even the most powerful news personalities brought low by fabrications and deceptions. NBC suspended Brian Williams for his lies — even when Williams issued statements far more contrite than Couric’s. Dan Rather — a broadcast-news giant — “retired” rather than face termination for his own role in passing off fraudulent documents about George W. Bush’s military service.

Simply put, if new media wants to be taken seriously, it needs to act seriously. Here’s what a serious news organization would do: Suspend Couric immediately, launch a thorough and comprehensive investigation of the VCDL’s allegations, and then — if the investigation confirms the facts stated above without revealing any material mitigating circumstances — fire her.

Of course fire her. That’s an easy call. But French too is deluded. This isn’t a new media ethics problem, it is a journalism crisis. NBC fired Williams because he was caught; does anyone seriously believe that the network didn’t know he was a liar all along, but approved of his motive to lie when it involved the news? Rather’s aggressive anti-Republican bias finally became a mania, but CBS had to know he was spinning the news his, and their, way. Couric was trained and nurtured in the biased culture that was created by Rather and the rest; French makes it sound like she was corrupted by Yahoo. On gun control, on abortion, on gender discrimination, in coverage of political races, regarding too many topics to count, lying, spinning, manipulating and distorting the facts to advance the agendas of left-leaning journalists of mostly average intellect and acumen is the norm. It is accepted. Couric just got sloppy, that’s all, like Rather. So now reporters claim to be shocked--shocked!–that gambling is going on at Rick’s.

Who can we trust today to be a fair and honest journalist  and not a smug activist who believes lies are just one more legitimate tool to accomplish ideological goals?


Sources: Washington Post 1, Washington Post 2, National Review, Washington Free Beacon, NPR

11 thoughts on “Katie Couric And The Anti-Gun Documentary: Not Just Vanishing Journalism Ethics, But Vanishing Consensus That Journalism Has Any Obligation To Be Ethical

  1. I have seen this story, but I do not know anything else about the film. They call it a documentary, but that name implies that it is attempting to be accurate about what it is covering. By putting forward a position, or slanting the coverage to achieve a specific response, does it not cross over into the area of propaganda?

    Academic questions:

    1. What is the difference between a documentary and propaganda?
    2. Is propaganda always deceptive on some level?
    3. Is propaganda unethical per se?


    • JG—

      1. Good documentaries, ethical ones, are like ethical lawyer advocacy in trial. There is a point of view, and a proposition to be proven, and the documentary doesn’t have to be objective. What it can’t be is misleading, use false evidence, or misrepresent opposing views, and claim to be a legitimate documentary. If it is satire, or a hit piece, or propaganda, that’s different.

      This was propaganda, like Michael Moore’s “documentaries,” like “An inconvenient Truth,” like “The Fog of War” and so many others on both sides of the spectrum.

      2. Yes.

      3. Propaganda is unethical if it represents itself as objective and fair, and it must to be effective.

  2. My first experiences with journalists was during the Vietnam War when I was in the intelligence community. Two times, the MACV J2 (in 1966 and 1967) asked me to brief a journalist. I told the first one the ground rules and he broke them, which resulted in a VC attack on our facility. The second also broke them and the information I gave him was in a Vietnamese newspaper the next day!
    My next experiences was when I was involved in the CBS/General Westmoreland Trial for the Uncounted Enemy show. I did not want to support CBS or the general so I wrote to Colonel Hawkins and told him I would back up all of his statements in the TV show. He replied that a CBS lawyer (David Boies) and two producers from the show would be at my house. They showed up and correctly conducted themselves but I am sure it was because they were on trial.
    I have been in irregular contact with special ops and intelligence personnel in today’s wars and they have told me they have had the same experiences. I believe that since there have been socialist/communist movements, they decided to infiltrate journalism so they could put the misinformation in their “news.”

  3. There is no excuse for intentional deception, I don’t care how much I support more stringent controls on firearms. I can’t tolerate deception and the manipulative editing of events.

  4. “UNDER THE GUN examines the events and people who have kept the gun debate fierce and the progress slow, even as gun deaths and mass shootings continue to increase.

    This was the first lie.

  5. This is just one more example of a continuing and wide-spread problem in the media. Media has devolved into blatant propaganda to advance certain public policy positions. The anti-gun and anti-2nd Amendment policy agenda is glaringly seen in all forms of media today.

    Recently, I became aware of the activities of the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) an organization supposedly dedicated to accurately depicting major health and social issues. See link here:

    http://www.eiconline.org/about-us/mission-statement/ .

    Among other things, this organization provides suggested narratives regarding how guns should be depicted or dramatized in movies, or TV programming or other forms of popular entertainment. Unfortunately, the EIC is light on positive gun related narratives and heavy on negative depictions of guns in American society.

    This propaganda is not limited to only the news; it extends to movies, documentaries, TV series, comedy, daytime talk shows… everything!

    Can there be any doubt what the motivation is? It is all about “re-educating” Americans to voluntarily give up their guns and feel all warm and fuzzy about further government intrusion to curtail civil liberties for the “greater good” of society.

    This is not “conspiracy theory” folks… this is reality and we are seeing it every day in every form of popular media.

  6. This is symptomatic of something that seems pervasive among journalists, news outlets and journalism schools: the belief that no on is capable of being objective so bias in reporting is just what it is. This may warrant consideration as a rationalization. It may just be a variation of everyone does it unique to news people. I consider it a very large blind spot of a college friend who went on to get a masters from Columbia School of Journalism.

  7. In 2016, if ANYONE is expecting any ethical behavior from politicians or journalists, they are very badly mistaken. Sadly, it is not just these two professions that suffer from a lack of ethics and morality, but more of a National, systemic breakdown.

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